Humanity must embrace a food cycle in which food that is not eaten is no longer considered waste; instead, it is considered a replenishable natural resource to be composted.
By N.J. Smith-Sebasto, Ph.D.
Recently, a headline from a science news reporting source caught my attention. It read, “Venus flytraps don’t eat the insects that pollinate them.” Upon reading the article, I learned that researchers at North Carolina State University have discovered that Venus flytraps (Dionaea muscipula) apparently are able to distinguish species of insects that pollinate them from those that do not and that they have the wisdom not to consume their pollinators, thereby, contributing to the survival of their species. I marveled at such wisdom and wondered if other higher order or more advanced species demonstrate such wisdom; that is, do they also not destroy that on which they depend for their very survival?
I considered humans first since we are often believed to be the most advanced form of life on Earth. I acknowledge that this belief is certainly open to debate. What is the evidence I might use to reach a conclusion? Twenty-five years ago, the Union of Concerned Scientists opined, “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know.”
In December 2017, an even larger group of scientists issued a follow-up notice proclaiming, “… humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving … environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse.” It appears that humans may not be demonstrating the level of wisdom demonstrated by the Venus flytrap.
Okay, so the Venus flytrap does not eat insects that contribute to its survival. What do humans destroy that contributes to their survival? The answer may be found in a quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt, in which he cautioned, “A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” It seems logical to me to extend President Roosevelt’s idea to humanity with the suggestion that if humanity destroys the soils of Earth, it destroys itself.
Are humans destroying soils of Earth in both quality and quantity? The answer is an unequivocal yes as clearly documented by the Global Assessment of Soil Degradation, which was published in 1991, and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which was published in 2005, to identify just two sources of documented soil degradation.
Embrace Sustainable Material Management
Is there a way that humans may demonstrate the wisdom of the Venus flytrap and not destroy a natural resource on which our very survival may depend? Again, the answer is an unequivocal yes. According to the U.S. EPA, roughly 95 percent of all uneaten food generated in the U.S. is currently landfilled or incinerated. Landfilling food contributes to environmental problems associated with methane emissions and leachate. Incinerating food reduces the efficiency of the facility and increases the need to supplement the fuel source with fossil fuels. Humanity must reject such waste management concepts and embrace sustainable materials management options. Humanity must embrace a food cycle in which food that is not eaten is no longer considered waste; instead, it should be considered a replenishable natural resource to be composted onsite or very locally with the nutrient-dense compost used, in conjunction with sustainable agriculture practices, onsite or very locally to restore the vitality of soils. These revitalized soils may then be cultivated to produce food locally without the need to add synthetically produced, fossil fuel-based fertilizers. Farmers may need to use less water because compost improves the water-holding capacity of soils. Compost also contributes to healthy soils by sustaining porosity in them, thereby, reducing the potential for them to be compacted. Lastly, food-based compost sustains or restores essential microbial activity to soils.
Borrowing from Rachel Carson, it is ironic to think that humanity might determine its own future by something as seemingly trivial as the decision to compost uneaten food. |
N.J. Smith-Sebasto is the Founder of FOR Solutions, LLC. He holds a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University, a M.S. from Colorado State University, and a B.S. from Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey). He has held executive and faculty positions at Kean University, Montclair State University, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He can be reached at (973) 945-9150 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Princeton University: On-Campus Food Conversion
Princeton University’s Office of Sustainability recently initiated an on-campus food conversion demonstration project involving a FOR Solutions Model 1000 Composting System. This aerobic in-vessel rotary drum composting system uses a programmed rotation and aeration process to accelerate the decomposition of campus uneaten food into finished compost in only five days, providing the University with a usable and nutrient-rich soil amendment for enhancing soil health. The project is already providing a unique opportunity for students and staff to partner on a weekly basis to achieve a shared goal of keeping food out of landfills and is generating community awareness about the importance of food composting via guided tours and weekly project updates at biodigester.princeton.edu. It will also begin to support academic research around food recycling—a rapidly evolving area that can benefit from applied testing and performance assessment while federal and state targets increasingly call for drastic cuts in wasted food. Given the general lack of rigorous assessment of market-ready solutions, Princeton University aims to be a model of sustainability innovation and service by demonstrating an emerging technology and developing knowledge around on-site food composting. Princeton University is also committed to reducing the overall volume of uneaten food, assuring that as much prepared food as possible is diverted to local communities in need prior to any composting activities. Via its composting demonstration project, Princeton University plans to provide financial and performance analysis to inform the field about the scalability and replicability of such an approach.
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